Strewth! Country & Western On The Quietus? The Blazing Zoos Interviewed

Andrew Mueller - journalist, author and now singer with The Blazing Zoos - talks to David Stubbs about his new band. Photo by Stephen Dowling

Journalist, author and now musician Andrew Mueller was raised in the small Australian town of Wagga Wagga. In an effort to live down this hilarious fact, he set off for London in 1990 with just a backpack of dreams. Starting out writing for Melody Maker in the UK, he’s since established himself as a journalist for a wide range of publications and written two acclaimed books which document his international travels – Rock And Hard Places (recently republished by Foruli Press) and I Wouldn’t Start From Here. In 2006 he formed Blazing Zoos, with the unlikely assistance of Mike Edwards, formerly of Jesus Jones. Their debut album I’ll Leave Quietly was recently released and, having had a number of online run-ins with Mr Mueller on musical matters nothing would give this writer greater pleasure than to report that it is a inept farrago of appalling hogwash, an unhappy marriage of balderdash and bilge. Grudgingly, however, I must concede that it is really rather good in a barnstorming, country-punk sort of way, particularly the opening track, ‘I Didn’t Have The Material (Before Now)’, which deserves props as the ultimate postmodern country & western unlucky-in-love song. Those who couldn’t stick Mike Edwards at any price will be surprised at how adeptly he turns his guitar hand to a genre he’d previously disregarded.

As for The Blazing Zoos live experience, I had turned up with a bagful of rotten fruit fully confident of a spot of exercise for my throwing arm, only to leave bearing the same load with which I entered. Despite a garish choice of shirts which would make any sane person envy the blind, he’s a mean old big-haired frontman, despite his self-deprecating banter, harnessing the formidable energies of a highly capable ensemble. What Blazing Zoo lack in clicks, drones, squally feedback, slap bass funk, motorik energy and abstract or arpeggiated analogue synthwaves, they more than make up for in ornery gusto.

You’ve frequently re-stated the dictum that you play both types of music – country and western. For those who fear this is a little reductive, could you possibly expand? You were among a generation that grew up to the soundtrack of a wide and eclectic range of genres. Was there any epiphanic experience which dissuaded you from, for example, following the course of electronic music?

Andrew Mueller: Listening to it. Specifically, listening to it in Australia in the late 1980s, after paying fortunes for imported records which my (scarcely less expensive) air-freighted copies of Melody Maker had urgently informed me were nigh as crucial to my well-being as food, air, and so forth, and which turned out, when the needle was applied to the plastic, to resemble the sound of a tumble-dryer with a toolkit in it, or a drunk losing balance in an alley full of dustbins. Call me a blinkered, fundamentalist Luddite, but I like songs with tunes.

You’re a blinkered… no, too obvious. How did you persuade Mike Edwards, formerly of Jesus Jones, to act as Doc Holliday to your Wyatt Earp, so to speak, on lead guitar? How did he take it when you dished out to him musical instructions as to how it should be done?

AM: I didn’t persuade Mike. Actually, I vaguely recall trying to talk him out of it. Before the band existed, at a point which my experience as a live performer consisted of one appearance at the open-mic night at the Bluebird café in Nashville in March 2006, I was offered a spot on the bill of a festival taking place in southern Albania. I mentioned this to Mike, who I’ve known for several centuries, and he volunteered his services. I expressed doubts, largely borne of the fact that his attitude to country music is substantially a blend of indifference and hostility, at which point he insisted. He also recruited Gen Matthews (drummer, also ex of Jesus Jones) and our first bass player, Alec Pointon, which kind of sealed the deal.

As for musical instructions, I didn¹t really give Mike any – I didn’t have to, as it turned out. I sent him a list of things I hoped the band would sound a bit like, and he bought them and learnt them. It surprised me as much as I suspect it’d surprise anyone; Jesus Jones were never all about the guitar, to say the least. But he’s an absurdly gifted player with an incredible ear – he got everything right the first time, pretty much, which was just the ticket, given that I had little idea what I was doing, and have no patience. The same is absolutely the case with everybody who played on the record.

Listening to I’ll Leave Quietly, there are times when one is unsure as to whether to laugh or cry into one’s beer. Or simply to drink the beer. Mirth and melancholia do a sort of line dance together.

AM: I hope so. That was always the idea. One of the things I’ve always liked about country music – and one of the things I think a lot of its detractors miss about it – is its astute and quite nuanced appreciation of the slenderness of the line that divides tragedy from comedy, especially where matters of the heart are concerned. My favourite country lyrics have always amounted to a rueful – but almost weirdly appreciative – recognition by the victim of the enormity of the practical joke that the universe has played on him.

Quietus readers may be of a mind to give country & western an extremely wide berth. ‘I would rather eat straw and stare at a horse’s arse for eight hours straight than subject myself to two minutes of the lachrymose, lethargic musings of a bunch of Confederate flag-waving, rhinestone clad rednecks as useless in love as they are at winning Civil Wars,’ one or two might observe. What would you say by way of retort to these misguided souls?

AM: That they should perhaps educate themselves by coming along, one Saturday, to North London’s finest honky tonk afternoon, Nashville-on-Thames, at the Lexington on Pentonville Road. There are guns and skulls on the walls, and a wide selection of whiskies behind the counter, and the DJs are friendlier than they might look.

I note with interest the song ‘Kumbo Prison Blues’. Am I right in thinking that this alludes to your own experience, which, not to belittle it, is perhaps the least harrowing kidnapping experience ever enjoyed by any citizen in a foreign country under siege? As I understand it, you were plied with wine every evening by your ‘captors’. And what was a country boy like yourself doing in those parts anyway?

AM: ‘Kumbo Prison Blues’ was indeed largely composed in the titular police station, in North-West Cameroon, where I was accommodated for the night in late 2005 after being arrested in the company of an illegal separatist organisation, with whom I was travelling by way of researching a chapter of I Wouldn’t Start From Here – a hack’s-eye history of the 21st century, described as ‘Not bad for a guy from Wagga Wagga’ by The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, copies of which remain available.

As the song admits, my captors – a mercifully affable platoon of local gendarmes – did indeed pony up a bottle of (non-vintage) claret. In my defence, I feel obliged to note that I subsequently spent my second (and, as it turned out, final) night of captivity in the lockup attached to the military base in nearby Bamenda, where no wine was forthcoming – though they did provide fresh bottled water, clean towels, and left the cell door open in case I needed the bathroom. It actually wasn’t noticeably worse than the hotel I’d been booked into anyway, and was also free, and the commanding officer was excellent company.

It should be noted that arrest and detention is usually a much less amusing experience for my erstwhile companions in the Southern Cameroons National Council, an avowedly non-violent movement whose members have been absorbing considerable punishment with great courage for some time now.

PG Wodehouse once wrote that if it was expected that writers should contain in their work a message for humanity, then in his case ‘humanity will have to remain one message short’. Is this the case with you? You are a man of decided opinions and an evangelist for C&W. What message, if any, do you bring to humanity via the Blazing Zoos?

AM: It’s probably pretty much the same as the message of all writers, PG Wodehouse not excluded, ie ‘Pay very close attention to my work, and afterwards, describe to me in rich and vivid detail the immense scale of your admiration for what I have created and by extension, your positively rampant appreciation of myself.’

Actually, though, whatever anyone thinks about the record, I’d be happy if the story of the band served as any sort of encouragement to anybody who has found themselves hobbled by reasons why they couldn’t or shouldn’t do a certain thing. There has scarcely been a moment, on stage, in studio or hunched over guitar in front of notepad, when I haven’t felt either or both hilariously out of my depth or troubled that I should really be getting on with my job. But it has been, and continues to

be, terrifically liberating fun. Our message, therefore, might be usefully distilled as: ‘Fuck it. Why not?’

_I’ll Leave Quietly, the debut album by The Blazing Zoos, is available here. Andrew’s book, Rock and Hard Places, has recently been re-published and can be ordered here – check back on The Quietus soon for an extract…_

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